This past week, I’ve been reading The Book: On the Taboo against Knowing Who You Are by Alan Watts. It’s a fascinating book, which presents Eastern (Vedantic, Buddhist, Taoist) notions about individuality for a Western audience in light of modern science. Mind you, it was written 50 years ago, so take “modern” with a grain of salt. Still, I found it provoked many curious ideas. I would like to talk about one of those, today.
I find there is a curious double standard when we talk about things we know. Some things known through science are claimed to be definitively known while other things, perhaps held on authority or consensus we consider to be simply believed. This implies that belief is in some way simpler and less substantiated than knowledge, a topic I cover in earlier blogs. For the moment, though, let’s stick with two classes of knowledge, or at least two classes of things we think.
I believe there is a profound distinction between things we know empirically (through science) and things we know by other means. I think there should be a double standard. I want to point out exactly where the dividing line is, however, and why it lies where it does. Frequently, I fear, people put it in the wrong place.
To begin with, science profoundly trusts the human ability to sense the real world. We claim things are more sure when we can see them with our own eyes, touch and hold them. Watts points out the important element of this. What we’re talking about is that somehow chemical signals in our brain correspond to our perception. We know that sight involves photons hitting receptors within our eyes. Those receptors set off a cascade of reactions sending a charge along neurons all the way to our brains. Within the brain, other neurons synthesize inputs from both eyes (and memory) to produce a visual field, what we think we see.
This argument will be particularly important to those who claim we are nothing more than brains and bodies – no soul, no mind (in a Cartesian sense). Keep that in mind. Or should I say keep that in brain?
Empiricism – knowing the world through observation – rests heavily on this assumption that real knowledge comes from a correspondence, an agreement between external reality and the state of our brain.
Now let us turn to the question of mystical experience – when people say they feel the presence of God, or the transcendent. Experiments have shown that some of these experiences can be produced by stimulation in a laboratory. Either direct electrical stimulation or chemical triggers can cause patients to feel euphoria, see bright lights, feel comforted, etc. So far, I find this all fascinating and in no way objectionable.
The problem arises when people use this kind of stimulus as proof that God (or angels, or transcendence, what have you) do not exist. They argue that these are only physical events. Imagine I could create a magnetic field that made you feel you’d had an epiphany (an profound realization about the universe). Or imagine I could give you a mushroom that had the same effect. (Both of these have been reported.) Would that be an argument against genuine revelation? No. Here’s why. A blow to the head can make you see flashing lights – and indeed no flashing lights need exist. This makes for a solid argument against trusting the sensation of flashing lights when one has had a blow to the head. [It should be noted that hitting someone else in the head can also bring flashing lights ... and sirens, but I digress.] The experiment does not cause you to doubt the existence of all flashing lights. Indeed, we know that something interesting has happened precisely because a real event (photons hitting your eye) has been counterfeited. The brain analog of reality has been fooled.
It seems clear that the experience of transcendence corresponds to a neurological state. What is not clear is whether it corresponds to an external reality. Producing the neurological state without the external event has no bearing on the question. We trust neurological states – indeed you must have the trust to find any hope the science produces knowledge.
This is not, of course the whole story. Science works with consensus. Surely it makes a difference if other people see the same light I do. In a more philosophically rigorous way, we might say it makes a difference if the experiment can be repeated by myself and others. If I see the lights and my friends don’t, perhaps I’ve suffered a blow to the head. (They may not all be my friends…)
Alas, this desire for confirmation does not rule out experiences of God or revelation. More people report belief in God than do not. Many people in reliable conditions experience feelings of a transcendent reality, even a transcendent personality. Thus we have a neurological state that has been replicated across time and by different observers. Not all people have this experience, but not all people see the color red, either. For that matter, not all people see. Consensus does not provide the distinction between sight and more “religious” types of sensation.
So what’s the deal? Are all experiences the same? Not really. Science does operate under the assumption that everyone – properly equipped – should be able to perceive the same thing under the same circumstances. We just need to be very careful about how we define proper equipment and same circumstance. Physics has very high standards for this, with extremely precise tools for measurement and an abundance of particles, all of which behave identically (as far as we can tell) with other members of the same class. All electrons behave exactly like an ideal electron. Biology has lower standards. We’re happy if most of the lemmings are going in the same direction. We note that small populations tend to lose genetic diversity. Economics has even lower standards, needing to work with relatively few, highly complicated economic systems. Any attempt to scientifically account for experience of God will need to be explicit about whose standards they are using. It’s been popular to use the standards of physics, but those won’t even allow you to do protein chemistry, much less anything of psychological interest. We should not be surprised that the high consistency of physics does not allow for revelation. Even at 7 billion people, the sample size is not big enough – not to mention the complexity of the phenomena.
This all leaves us with philosophical assumptions. Modern science – along with earlier approaches to empiricism – works under assumptions of nominalism (individuals exist, categories like “species” and “electron” are only names we give to groups of individuals) and physicalism (everything can be explained in terms of physical properties of physical things). Those are not empirical observations about the universe, they are philosophical assumptions necessary to be an empiricist. Doesn’t make them wrong. Indeed, I think they are tremendously useful. Nonetheless, they should not be used to justify claiming “there is no God” or “there is no revelation” beyond the strict pragmatic notion that “those ideas don’t give me any traction in understanding the universe.” I’d be happy to discuss how they do help in understanding, but we need to know that’s what we’re talking about.
At the same time, I really wish my co-religionists would stop trying to use science to prove the existence of God. Science was not built to do that and I fear you’ll break it if you try to use it in that way.
The distinction between scientific and mystical (or revealed) knowledge comes from the language in which it is spoken and the assumptions it presumes. Yes, the feeling of God may be faked, but that does not mean the real thing does not exist. All knowledge relates to our – admittedly faulty – biological hardware (even our beliefs about whether or not anything exists to operate the hardware – soul, what have you)). The interesting question comes when we ask whether an external event caused the mental state and that remains a philosophical question.